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15 October 2014
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AN ARTIST IN PRISON CAMP

by Freeflighter

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Archive List > Royal Air Force

Contributed by 
Freeflighter
People in story: 
Colin N. Dilly
Location of story: 
Egypt, Crete, Germany and Poland
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A5283263
Contributed on: 
23 August 2005

Colin Dilly (centre, kneeling) and colleagues, probably in Stalag Luft III.

My father, Colin N. Dilly, was a commercial artist and illustrator between the Wars. He had flown De Havilland 9As and RE 8s in 1918, but the first War ended before he flew operationally. In 1939 he joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve and was called up on the outbreak of War, doing his training as a codes and ciphers officer at RAF Uxbridge.

In late 1939 he was posted to Cairo, travelling there by sea, and was based at RAF HQ there for about a year. He sent home large numbers of photographs, all with copious details on the back. His next posting was to Heraklion in Crete and he flew there in a Sunderland flying boat, about which he was most enthusiastic. He was also enthusiastic about the Cretan scenery and he did numerous sketches while he was there. When the German parachute and glider-borne landings on Crete took place in May 1941 he was operating from a cave above the airfield and saw the strafing and landings on the airfield from a slightly safer spot than some. He was eventually captured and flown to Athens in a Junkers 52. From there he went by rail in a cattle truck across Jugoslavia and Austria to the Dulag Luft transit and interrogation camp near Frankfurt-am-Main. I think it was immediately after that that he was moved to Marlag und Milag Nord.

After we received the initial printed card from Germany, on which new PoWs simply filled in their name, rank and service number, we started to get letter cards from my father. All were, of course, censored both by the Germans and by the British before they arrived on our doormat. My father wrote all his letters from prison camp in a very neat upper-case script about 1.5mm high, and occasionally words or lines had been very thoroughly blocked out by a censor. A few months after he was captured we received a small bundle of his letters, accompanied by a note from the British censor saying that it was believed that my father was sending coded information, and asking if my mother could help. My godmother was staying with us at the time and the two of them puzzled over the letters for some time. She noticed that several of his letters mentioned that he was trying to change his writing and asked if we had noticed any change; eventually we found that if we sighted along each line of script an occasional letter was fractionally higher than the others and these larger letters formed the messages.

My father was in Oflag Xc, near Lübeck, then Oflag VIB at Warburg and Oflag XXIB at Schubin. From October 1942 until almost the end of the War he was in Stalag Luft 3 at Sagan, between Berlin and Wrocław, or Breslau as it then was known. After a while some of his letters had references to the activities of “Mr. Delvet and his friends”; some told us that “50 of D.D’s students had failed their exams”. My parents were very keen on the countryside and wildlife and I was brought up on Beatrix Potter books among many others. My mother soon realised that these references were to a character in one of the Potter books, Diggory Delvet, who was a mole, and that my father was telling us of tunneling attempts, most of which were unsuccessful. In early 1943 he told us that “..some of Rainey’s old friends” had arrived, though segregated from the RAF compound and that a voluntary collection had been organised for them. “Rainey” was one of my parents’ friends who had communist leanings, and this told us that Soviet prisoners had arrived. He also wrote that it was true that they had snow on their boots; after the War we learned that those first Soviet prisoners had no shelter that winter and that the RAF prisoners had thrown food and clothing into their compound to try to keep them alive.

For a while after the unsuccessful Dieppe landing British PoWs were handcuffed, apparently in retaliation for the use of handcuffs on German prisoners by the Canadian troops bringing them back to the UK.

One of his letters told us that he was doing five days solitary confinement in “the cooler” for being late on one of the morning parades at Oflag XX1B; so many had been late that it was not till he was in Stalag Luft 3 that he served his sentence, for there had been a long queue of ‘offenders’. He wrote that his mistake was to give his right name (“but don’t tell Martin”); most of the others gave names like Crippen and M. Mouse and were never found when there became space for them to start their sentence.

My father organised art classes for prisoners and made a ‘samizdat’-type manual for students; he did posters for the many plays put on in the camp theatre, some of which the German staff attended, little suspecting the activities that took place under the stage. One of his letters mentioned that he’d been making papier maché masks for one of the plays and “for some of D.D’s activities”. Dummies were sometimes taken on the morning parades to hide the fact that there were fewer prisoners in camp than were counted the previous evening. Forging passes and documents and making fake German rubber stamps from shoe soles or sometimes as potato prints was another of his activities. He developed a technique of glazing the faked photos on passes by using repeated layers of saliva.

Throughout his time in prison camp he sketched and painted and he brought home numerous sketchbooks covering all sorts of camp activities. He made the mistake of lending some to the makers of the film The Wooden Horse, based on the famous escape from Stalag Luft 3; none were ever returned. I leant some others to the authors of a book on another escape, Flak and Ferrets, to help their research, and unfortunately the thatched cottage where one lived burnt down before the book was finished and most of the remainder of the sketchbooks were lost.

As the rapid Soviet advance approached Sagan in early 1945 the Germans marched the prisoners westward; with some notice of this my father had made a sledge. My father was one of the older officers, at 45, and conditions on the march were very bad; it was mid-winter and one of the younger ones, Tony Ingram, was on the point of just lying down in the snow and waiting to be shot, but my father repeatedly urged him on and for many years after the War we received a Christmas card from him. Prisoners were housed in barns and disused factories overnight; in one of the few letters we received after this my father mentioned that as they were marched through villages this was the first time he had seen any children for several years.

Eventually they reached Stalag IIIA at Luckenwalde. We got very few letters from that camp, the last being dated March 25th, 1945; presumably the chaotic conditions meant that PoW mail was a pretty low priority. His few letters from Jan. 11th onwards were received around a year later and stamped “Recovered PoW Mail from Europe Recently Received by British P.O”. We also received a couple of my mother’s letters to my father, sent in late 1944; they were stamped “This letter formed part of undelivered mails which fell into the hands of the Allied forces in Germany. It is undeliverable as addressed, and is therefore returned to you”.

Stalag IIIA had held prisoners from a number of nations and these included the USSR; one of my father’s watercolours was of a sumptuously decorated Russian Orthodox church that Soviet prisoners had created from one of the huts. In view of the fact that some sections of Stalag IIIA had been used earlier in the War during attempts by the Germans to recruit units formed of Allied prisoners I wonder whether improved conditions had been provided for those the Germans had hoped to ‘turn’.

In mid-April the Soviet army liberated the camp; my father’s sketchbooks included drawings of Soviet soldiers and he mentioned that there were several women in the unit. There were problems with immediate repatriation, though, and by May 7th the prisoners were still confined to camp. Food rations were inadequate and as well as the 16,000 prisoners of mixed nationality there was an influx of Italian refugees. I have the letter from the Senior British Officer to the Russian Commandant for Repatriation outlining the problems; in it he demands immediate repatriation and resigns his responsibility for all but the British prisoners. Eventually my father, along with other RAF prisoners, was moved to Halle airfield, from which he was flown in a USAAF C-47 to Cosford, where he was de-loused, provided with a de-mob suit and from which he finally came back to my mother and me, after five and a half years absence.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - An artist in prison camp

Posted on: 24 August 2005 by Ron Goldstein

Dear FreeFlighter (or is it Martin?)

Many, many thanks for letting us read about your father Colin and his most readable and unique service career.

I feel your pain when you write of lending priceless memorabilia to others, only to have irreplaceable items lost because of others irresponsibility.

One of the main reasons I have written so many articles on this site (others would say much too many !) is probably based on an attempt by myself to get my memories into a safe form of storage.

I have always admired the triumph of the human spirit over shockingly adverse conditions and your father's story amply bears this out.

With all good wishes to you and your family

Ron

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